I'm in a place that I really don't know how to move on from. Help!
February 11, 2017 1:12 PM   Subscribe

I've never felt like this. After college I decided to go travel instead of facing the real world, and it's been 3.5 years now. What started as a lifestyle that I chose to happily live has resulted in so much heartbreak and emotional detachment. I literally do not know how to move on from here.

I'm a 27 year old straight male.

Unsure of what I wanted to do with my life after I graduated college, I decided to go travel. I will note that I did live away from home during that time, but that is the last time I had a normal day-to-day life. Traveling is something that when I started, brought me so much personal joy and happiness and was something I enjoyed doing. Until about a year ago. That's when I wanted to stop but just couldn't bring myself to do it.

I'm crying as I write this. This is actually my 5th day straight crying, 2 or 3 of which I have cried myself to sleep. So this is not a light issue at all. For those that will recommend therapy, I currently don't have insurance (or a job) and I would like some people to help talk me through this, which is why I'm posting on here. I feel that reading your responses will help. If it came to it, I would definitely spend the money on therapy, but is something I would strongly like to avoid right now.

I'm actually not depressed or anything like that right now, except about this particular issue. It just took me a really long time to reach the level of happiness that I was at. This is something I would only think about every once in a while when I slowed down and had the time to ponder it, and usually would only last that day, but I've been going crazy for 5 days now. And there appears to be no end in sight. I've been temporarily back home since December but I believe this was triggered by a recent travel experience.

From traveling so much, having to say goodbye to those that I meet is something that I have to do often. When I first started, it was easy. And as a traveler it's supposed to come easy. Someone is your friend for 5 minutes, or 5 days, and then poof...they're gone. I'm not just talking about girls, although it definitely is harder when I have to say goodbye to a girl I had a quick fling with!

A few things that also don't help are that 1) My social circle isn't that big. 2) I was never really that close to my family at all. I do keep in touch all the time with those that I have met from traveling, but that just makes it worse I think. The in-person goodbyes just hurt so much and because of all this, I feel so emotionally detached. The lack of a long-term relationship is what's really hurting me right now. Not to say having one would make everything all better, and that's not what I'm asking for or trying to seek out at the moment, but it is a big factor.

And I just can't shake the feeling that I just wasted a few very important years of my life and that traveling did more harm than good. On my travels I did stay in one place for an entire year and another for 6 months, but other than that it was all go-go-go.

I would like to stop traveling, but even if I did, I'm not sure how that would work. I believe I am capable of settling down, but right now I just feel that whatever I do....whether it's settle down, keep traveling, or even settle down abroad...will just create further damage to my physche.

I just feel like I've missed out on so much no matter what I do next. Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I don't want to trivialize your much deeper existential crisis, but did want to note that when I came home after two years in the Middle East teaching English, I had increased anxiety for a year and in some ways felt like I had PTSD.

Sebastian Junger (a war writer) notes that Peace Corp workers experience similar PTSD and adjustment problems as soldiers.

I know people who went to school and didn't travel who feel like they are missing out.

A book that might help with some of what you are experiencing

Don't give up.
posted by craniac at 1:44 PM on February 11, 2017 [9 favorites]

Can you let us know where you are living? Many communities have free or very low cost mental health services. Being depressed "about just one thing" is still being depressed, and crying for days straight is indicative of serious depression, as are several other of your statements.

Get the help you need first and now before tackling what to do next.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:47 PM on February 11, 2017 [14 favorites]

The reality is that the highs you experience from long term travel are nothing more than highs, which by definition cannot lead to lasting happiness. Longterm happiness (so I`ve heard) comes from deepened commitments to the human community whether at work, in relationships, in friendships, or in volunteer work, or an artistic pursuit. So what you`re feeling is very natural and predictable given what you`ve spent the last few years doing.

The lack of a long term relationship isn`t your problem, I dont think. It`s the lack of community in general. Luckily for you, if you`re staying in one place, a community is not that hard to find. i would advise you NOT to pursue any relationships while you`re in this state of mind. You will only hurt yourself and others and create traumatic memories.

3.5 years is not that long. If you had stayed home, you probably would have wasted them on something else stupid. Like being in love with someone who didn`t love you back, or being a player and hurting a lot of people. Pretty much everyone wastes 3 years of their 20s doing stupid shit.

You`re only 27. You have plenty of time to start over. I`m serious. I started over at 27 and it`s taken me 2 years to feel a bit more settled in a new city.

I`ve had an existential crisis. It sucks. It takes a long time to get over. But it will go away I promise you. Invest yourself in trying to get a stable life going, and appreciating the benefits of being part of a community. Give back­ and your life will have meaning again.
posted by winterportage at 1:55 PM on February 11, 2017 [38 favorites]

When I was in my 30's I went on a 2 month bicycle trek in NZ and Australia. At the end of 2 months I was afraid my friends wouldn't like me anymore. I was only gone for 2 months and to a place where they spoke the same basic language as I. I was convinced that all my friends would hate me. So my point is, traveling can really mess with your head. Kind of like emotional jet lag.
I can't imagine traveling ever being a waste of time. And, though I hated it when people would say this to me, I'm going to say it to you. Omg, you are so young. You have time to do anything. It doesn't feel like it now but when you peer back from 40 you will see it. And, 40 looks looks awesome from 60.
I think you are having a travel induced panic attack.
Are you somewhere where they have help lines? They aren't just for the suicidal.
I called one last year because I was freaking about a situation I was in. You don't have to give them your full name or phone #. It gave my someone objective to talk to.
You are not alone.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:01 PM on February 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

I just feel like I've missed out on so much no matter what I do next.

It's so easy, when you're in a bad place emotionally, to feel like this. So easy to feel like you've missed the boat on life, that if only you'd done something different, you'd be in the place you need to be. I've been there. Still am some days. It's horrible and you have my sympathy and empathy. But I'd say a few things:

- There is nothing that you can do at 23 that you can't do at 27, or 30, or 35. You haven't burnt any bridges whatsoever.

- You have probably got about 6 decades of adult life ahead of you. You've got time to travel some more and then settle down, or settle down now and then travel some more. You've got time enough for anything you like.

- If you're crying for 5 days straight about something other than the loss of your closest loved ones, it's probable that this is something to do with how your seeing the situation, as well as the situation itself. That means you can do things (like therapy, medication, meditation, exercise, etc) to deal with that, so that you'll feel better even if you don't solve your broader crisis for a while.

- There are no points for living your life a particular way. There isn't a way to get the "right" result, and even if you "wasted"a few years (or even many years), that isn't going to invalidate the good years that follow. One day at a time is all you need to do - you haven't got to feel like you're at some sort of deficit.

I'm sorry it hurts so much. Take care of yourself, and get through it, and there will be a day when you're really glad for every choice you made, because you'll be happy, and the path you have taken will be the only way you could have got there.
posted by howfar at 2:07 PM on February 11, 2017 [10 favorites]

You say (1) you now have heartbreak and emotional detachment from (2) a lifestyle that gave you happiness for several years.

That is a useful insight: it means that (1) what you are doing is no longer serving you and that (2) you know that happiness from your lifestyle is possible.

It also means that you already know that how you feel right now is not permanent. That is great.

To address where you are right now: The days of crying sound really difficult. Here are a few first steps:
(1) How is your self-care going? Try committing to a month of sleeping at consistent hours, eating healthy food, and exercise.
(2) How is your physical health? Are you suffering from any illnesses that are not adequately managed? If you aren't in a good state of health, or if you haven't had a medical checkup within the last year, look into that.

Also, as to your worry about wasted time: Just because you spent some years doing what you wanted at the time, even though you now wish you had done something else, doesn't make the time wasted. After all, anything you do means that many other things are not possible to do at the same time because a person cannot be in two places at once.

In addition, having been able to travel for several years and finished college at age 27 is pretty good. Many people would love to have been able to do either or both of those things but have not been able to

Also, 27 is still quite young. Statistically most of your life is in front of you. You probably have plenty of time to make new choices !
posted by PlannedSpontaneity at 2:09 PM on February 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

The first thing my therapist would have said to you would be "Are you exercising?" I know the last thing you feel like doing is going for a f@#%ing run/walk/swim but it will probably help.
Even just stretching will help. You are surely all tensed up.
I like to swim because I come out feeling cleansed. And then I can go sit in the jaccuzzi and stretch while my muscles are warm. And then the sauna to sweat out my woes.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:29 PM on February 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh and please stop traveling now. You`ve come to the end of it. Stay at your parents place for at least a year and see how much better you`ll feel.
posted by winterportage at 2:33 PM on February 11, 2017

If you've been crying for five straight days, you probably are depressed. A lot of counselors offer sliding-scale rates, so you usually won't have to pay much. It's important that you see a professional. Internet randos are not trained to treat things like this.

One of the most valuable aspects of therapy, in my experience, is validating your feelings and making you realize that you're not unusual for feeling how you feel. Speaking as an untrained Internet rando, I don't think what you're feeling is weird. You're 27. That's the age where a lot of people you know from high school and college are settling down, getting married, and advancing in their careers. It's normal to see that and wonder if that could have been you. It's also normal to reflect on your lack of attachments. Maybe that's an area you can work on.
But remember, not many people know what they want to do next when they're 27. When I was 27, I had no plans beyond the next week. I had just broken up with a girl is been dating for four years, and I was working at a dead-end job I didn't like. I wanted to change my lifestyle just like you do now, and like you, I had no idea how. I just drifted along for two more years until I got laid off during the recession. Even then, it took me another 2.5 years to really stabilize. So hang in there.

The key is to make commitments. It doesn't really matter what you decide to do. You're gonna second-guess whatever you decide to do. But whatever you decide to do, whether it's continuing to travel or settling down, it'll be better than just standing at the crossroads. Personally, I'd say it sounds like you want to settle down, but you have to examine yourself. Just make a decision and go far enough along that path so that you can't go back to the other path.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:23 PM on February 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would like to stop traveling, but even if I did, I'm not sure how that would work. I believe I am capable of settling down, but right now I just feel that whatever I do....whether it's settle down, keep traveling, or even settle down abroad...will just create further damage to my physche.

It sounds like it's time to stop traveling for a while at least. Why do you feel that would create further damage? I ask because depression sometimes lies to us that we will always be depressed - this feeling (though perhaps not from depression) could be generated similarly - from fear rather than from facts or experience.

Big changes are always, always scary and it's perfectly natural to be scared. I am confident that if you can handle traveling the world (which to me sounds scary and impressive), you can handle taking a job. Without knowing any other particulars of your situation, I'd say move in with your parents for a while, find a job, and make / reconnect with some friends. If that turns out to be the wrong path, you'll know. You'll be able to make adjustments or change course.

In addition to the above suggestions to seek therapy, I suggest seeing a doctor. It's possible that your situation does have some psychological elements but is being exacerbated by a physical condition.

Good luck to you!
posted by bunderful at 3:29 PM on February 11, 2017

You're having your first mid-life crisis.

Have you ever heard the expression "Follow your passion"? Ignore that! Try "Make yourself useful" - here's a talk by Cal Newport

Volunteer someplace. At least 2 hours twice a week.

This may be tangentially applicable: http://www.wimp.com/simplething/
posted by at at 4:38 PM on February 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Bruce Chatwin. Reading everything he wrote will bring you home again. I promise it will at least make a dent.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:08 PM on February 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think this could simply be a way of signaling to yourself that it's time to stay in one place for a longer period of time.
posted by umbú at 6:25 PM on February 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is still the middle of the winter, so drink more water, cut down on salty, preserved foods, take calcium supplement and Vitamin D. Be sure you are eating at regular intervals. Our world is still in one piece, and the situation is somewhat fraught, but it is a good time to get after something you like to do, to make a living. If you don't have to work to live, then find something to do with your time that has a net positive effect for you, and those around you, for the world. Take a number of deep breaths throughout the day, when you start to feel unsettled and note that you have family, for better or worse, and that gauntlet is both wonderful and awful, for everyone that has one. You are of value. One thing I do is to make a loop of beautiful scenery nearby, it doesn't have to be major, even very small places hold a beauty. I have a message notification on my phone, of frogs, that I recorded of frogs singing in a small place that I love. It will always be with me, though I do not live near that place any more. The loop I made while I lived there was no more than 20 miles and it sustained my urge to travel, wander, or wonder. I photographed it endlessly, and I have started my new loop where I now live. Let seeing the world settle your urge to travel, travel small, and hold down your local world, make a comfortable place for yourself, inside yourself.
posted by Oyéah at 6:46 PM on February 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

I am not saying this to trivialize your feelings: this is very normal and you are not alone. That doesn't mean you shouldn't feel this way or that it should be easier, but just know: this is what your mid 20's feel like for many (all?) people. In an alternative universe, anonymous OP might write in about feeling like he wasted his life not traveling, or for traveling and then stopping traveling after only a year, or any number of scenarios that you're now agonizing may have been the better path.

Reading about the quarterlife crisis phenomenon might be a good place to start so you feel less alone and less like you've made an irreversible mistake. Not everyone's story will
echo yours, but I bet you'll recognize the feeling you have now of thinking anything you do next is loaded with the potential to make you feel worse in a lot of people's stories.

A few other things: This is around the time in your life when people usually look around and realize they've drifted apart from people in their life for whatever reason — college is over, people go their separate ways and after a couple years it's harder to keep up even if you truly have things in common or a lot of affection for each other. Travel probably added to you feeling like you don't have any significant relationships, but a lot of it is just that you're in this stage of life and that's okay! You didn't fail at relationships or anything, it's just the the ties that bound your peers together start to unravel from your past life stages at this point. (Obviously this doesn't happen to everyone or with every friend, but I dropped a lot of friends from age 25–30ish and I was relieved to hear that this is A Thing That Happens and it bolstered my self esteem enough to feel like I could make new friends.)

I've had times of crying non stop for days and catastrophizing and I think it's far less important to label it depression than to learn self soothing/coping strategies. Not that folks here don't mean well when they tell you to get therapy or to call it depression, but I really respect you when you say that you're not looking for our opinion on that. My favorite strategy for when I start worrying about things that are overwhelming, yet thinking about them does fuck all to help: I ask, Is this a story I have to be telling myself right now? (I read this trick on a fairly vapid blog called Cup of Jo, but I accept wisdom from whoever is telling it.) I have to ask myself that about a hundred times to interrupt the catastrophizing but it really works for me.

There are so many decisions that I have made that felt so stupid in hindsight but believe me when I tell you that eventually enough time passes where you realize that very few things doom you forever. I'm talking really stupid decisions, like staying in a job that gave me a kind of PTSD, or quitting three! jobs without another one lined up or spending all the inheritance of a dead parent on traveling to be with and eventually move in with a girl who was not right for me. As I was sobbing about this one night, scared that I would never stop fucking up, that not-right-for-me ex told me: stop throwing good money after bad, meaning, stop making panicked choices based on past mistakes. I don't know why that stopped me in my tracks, but it did. You have to stop beating yourself up for what you think were the wrong decisions. Make your choice of what to do next independent of your years traveling and eventually you'll be able to decide if you made the wrong decision but it's not something you can know now. It takes hindsight and changing the situation to answer that question.

You're beating yourself up for feeling like you wasted time and that's totally irrelevant! Make a list of things you can do to make yourself feel better going forward. It doesn't matter if you do them or not. Just remind yourself that you have options. The list can basically be made up of all the advice you've gotten here.

Also, you might make a decision that makes things worse. Unfortunately, that's how it works. The cheesy shit about mistakes being the way we find success is true. When I say I made a series of stupid decisions, I really should say that I kept trying until I figured out how to do it right. It took five cross country moves and a lot of financial problems but every problem I had a decade ago has been solved by trial and error. I'm so proud of myself for that but during it all I was convinced I was the stupidest person alive. It really doesn't matter what you do next, just don't keep traveling.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 7:42 PM on February 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

Hey. I'm a 28 year old, straight woman. I spent the time from after college moving around most every year, 3 times internationally over the course of 5 years. While I wasn't traveling all the time (most times I lived in that place for a period) I REALLY REALLY REALLY get what you mean about the emotional exhaustion. I found that I couldn't do it anymore. Despite the excitement of getting to meet new people, see new places and try new things I needed stability. I made the very real decision that as fun as these things were, they were really worth doing if I couldn't share them with someone. More than that, I found that I couldn't keep saying goodbye and leaving a piece of my heart in each corner of the earth. What I needed to do was come back stateside and put down roots. While I was abroad I really questioned if what I was doing was worth missing out on friends engagements, weddings, and new babies in the family. Now that I'm back in SO GLAD I took the time to travel. I'm behind in my career, it's hard making friends as an adult, but I understand how easy it is to say "I could never do that" and never travel again.

I needed the perspective of something else to make me better appreciate the time I had away. Decide what your priority is. Im glad that I came back when I was done for a while. I still get itchy feet but I also have an appreciation of the stability of my life now.

I would not be so happy with my current life if I hadn't wanted to come home. If you don't want to be done yet- don't be. All the time that I traveled I was working. Look for opportunities abroad- lead tour groups, join the Peace Corps, sign on to a cruise ship, etc. I wanted to find a partner more than I wanted to keep traveling (and I have a wonderful boyfriend of about 5 months!).

I came back to the USA about a year ago. It has taken that full time to readjust to being here (and I'm still doing it). I'm sorry if this is rather ramble and incoherent but there's still a lot that I'm working out for myself. Feel free to follow up through memail.

Get a routine and cut yourself some slack.
posted by raccoon409 at 8:29 AM on February 12, 2017

I'm sorry I'm just now seeing this. I really relate to you. At one point in my life, I decided I wanted to be a traveler who didn't need anyone. Then I woke up one day a few years later and realized I didn't have anyone and wanted people. The answer is simple: you can build a community and lasting relationships for yourself the same way you built a traveling lifestyle for yourself. You can do it. It just takes quite awhile. But that's not a big deal -- it takes quite awhile for everyone, and the years right out of college are transient for many people, so you don't have to regret it, you just have to resolve to change. And you have to not give up. It'll take awhile to get settled in a suitable place, start meeting people, and let your relationships deepen. Really, most people spend their life navigating the rises and falls in their relationships and circle of friends (deepening one relationship, breaking up, rekindling other friendships after the breakup, dealing with the fact that their two closest friends just got married and are less available...) so you're not necessarily in a different space than others (one of your hypothetical peers probably just moved across the country for grad school and found out that their best friend back home sucks at long distance friendship) except that you also got to have this traveling experience. Be grateful for that, while walking confidently and with solid determination toward a life that will allow you to build stable friendships. You can do it. Good luck.
posted by salvia at 11:40 AM on February 12, 2017

"I would like to stop traveling, but even if I did, I'm not sure how that would work. I believe I am capable of settling down, but right now I just feel that whatever I do....whether it's settle down, keep traveling, or even settle down abroad...will just create further damage to my physche.

I just feel like I've missed out on so much no matter what I do next."

Whatever you would have done at home that you didn't do because you traveled you missed out on. What's more, you will continue missing out on things for the rest of your life. Unless you have yourself put into an induced coma, so that you miss out on everything, it's not possible to have control over this. Your description matches my lived experience: you go along doing things and seeing stuff and then every few years without meaning to you find yourself taking stock. It all comes flooding back to you, how long you've been doing things and seeing stuff, and you remember a time when you were doing different things and seeing different stuff and you're overwhelmed with a sense of the horrifying futility of all of it. Some people, apparently, never have these periods of self-reflection and just skip blithely along. Those are the people who DON'T have depression/anxiety. The people who know deep down that whatever they do will just create further damage? Those are the people who DO have depression/anxiety.

To do while you feel this way:
Wait it out.
Be patient with yourself.
Speak gently to yourself.
If it gets very dark and sad, seek doctors.

To not do while you feel this way:
Do not make any enormous investments of money. Do not end friendships. Do not get married. Do not adopt or procreate.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:47 AM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

What also helped me was making a playlist of songs from people who were waking up to the same thing:
Willie Nelson, Dar Williams.
posted by salvia at 11:54 AM on February 12, 2017

So, I think I'm pretty much you in some ways here, just a little farther from the original crash. I have been traveling around since I graduated college 3 years ago, my longest stints in one place being 8 and 3 months. For the last year, I found myself floating in and out of depression and anxiety. I had amazing days, but I also had days in where I couldn't get out of my hostel bed, while all the while my friends at home told me what a great life I had. I ended up just forcing myself to stop, going home my family for a few months until the brunt of the storm was over (and getting help), and now I'm doing some long term volunteering to help me transition back.

When I was at the height of it, I told myself many of the things you are telling yourself. I told myself I'd never have real relationships, never find love or have long term friends because I just couldn't be in one place. I told myself that settling down would be worse, I'd get tied to some lame job and be stuck in an office for the rest of my life.

I hate to say it, but that was depression talking. I had been traveling to see the world, and I did see and learn so much. But I was also traveling to avoid my depression and anxiety, and to escape the problems in my personal and family relationships. Growing up in a loving but fucked up family, I had trained myself to use extreme detachment as a coping mechanism.

I don't know if all of this or any of this applies to you, but it feels similar enough that I hope theirs something that applies to you. I'm not totally past this, and I still have no idea what I'm doing with my life, but settling in a community really does help. Finding stable things and stable people who you can spend your time with, and something you care about to help with makes a difference. You haven't wasted your time, but it's ok that you need a change of direction right now. I think long term travel and emotional detachment go hand in hand, and the only way to change that is to stop, dive in, and seek help for anything underlying that might have been making you seek detachment (ie, avoidance of anxieties or as a way to cope with trauma). I will say also on the not being able to afford therapy note, that for me a mindfulness meditation routine, exercise, and eating habits change did about as much as therapy (yeah, I know that's not true for everyone) and were a lot cheaper.
posted by Wanderwhale at 1:42 PM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

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